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home : schools and education : schools May 29, 2016

10/9/2012 3:03:00 PM
Keeping pace in the STEM race
Emily Swearingen explores things at the cellular level during science on Friday. Allie Barker joins her in the background.Photo by Stacy Tudor Mitchell
Emily Swearingen explores things at the cellular level during science on Friday. Allie Barker joins her in the background.
Photo by Stacy Tudor Mitchell
Levi Buyas, a freshman in Dan Durr's physical science class, gets ready to launch his balloon.Photo courtesy Dan Durr
Levi Buyas, a freshman in Dan Durr's physical science class, gets ready to launch his balloon.
Photo courtesy Dan Durr
By Stacey Chisam
Leader Correspondent

(Second in a series on how area schools are teaching science, technology, engineering and math skills.)

ENTIAT -- One balloon, four Popsicle sticks, a set of wheels, and some tape. The assignment: construct a vehicle that moved a minimum of 1 meter using just these items.
Even TV hero MacGyver would have to spend some serious time on this one, yet students in Entiat High School's Physical Science class faced this out-of-the-box assignment last week.

EHS Junior Monika Rock, who tackled the same exercise in her Physics class earlier this year, enjoys teacher Dan Durr's unique challenge.

"He gave us the end result and the supplies and let us figure out how to get there," said Rock. "He teaches classes like they're a college course, making us really think and be accountable for what we're learning. I like that."

Durr believes in a hands-on approach for his science students whenever possible. The only high school science instructor at EHS, Durr was selected as one of only 50 middle and high school educators from across the country to take part in this summer's exclusive Siemens STEM Institute fellowship, designed to bring teachers to the cutting edge of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

"I applied for this professional development opportunity because it offered the chance to work with scientists," said Durr. "I'm always looking for new insights that will help me better teach not just the facts but the process of science."
Patrick Deskin, a former student of Durr's, is majoring in Aeronautical Engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, remembers his teacher's passion.

"Mr. Durr always showed us real-world uses for science, fueling my already growing interest in space," recalled Deskin. "He helped me stay motivated in the pursuit of my goal to be a part of the foundation for human space exploration."

Durr is one of a growing number of educators, business and political leaders in Washington recognizing the increased need for strong STEM programs in schools.
Industry leaders such as Microsoft and Boeing recently joined forces to create Washington STEM, a statewide nonprofit organization devoted to improving education in science, technology, engineering and math.

Washington STEM Board Vice President Brad Smith, Mircorsoft's General Counsel and Executive Vice President, leads the charge in offering solutions for how Washington can fill the demand for STEM-trained workers.

"To push the changes needed in the STEM education pipeline, we believe the country needs a national Race to the Future initiative that would provide incentives and financial resources," said Smith in a presentation at Brookings Institution last month.

More STEM-educated workers mean more STEM instructors. The National Education Association announced plans this month to raise $1.5 million for an initiative to increase the number of certified science and math teachers and improve STEM instruction.

"We're working to get additional qualified, caring, and committed math and science teachers into classrooms," said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

As the STEM train gains momentum, Entiat School District is in no way left behind.

"We're well aware of the benefits of a strong STEM program and we're doing everything we can to give Entiat students the opportunities to excel in these fields," said Miles Caples, Entiat School District Principal. "One of our strengths is our small class size, enabling us to partner with local entities and get kids out of the classroom and into real-world STEM scenarios more often."

Entiat Middle School teacher Kevin Jones' seventh-grade students teamed with Chelan PUD volunteers in a pilot program last year, building and racing hovercrafts.

This year Jones' sixth, seventh, and eighth graders are working on Lego robotics with peers from Waterville Middle School, using Skype to host real-time discussions between classrooms.

Durr's new role as Entiat's STEM ambassador hasn't changed how he approaches his work.

"There's a difference between knowing how to use a tool and how the tool actually works," states Durr. "I always try to apply this logic when I'm teaching. I want kids to critically think about the process behind the science first, and then learn how to use the latest and greatest tools available to achieve their goal."

(Contact Stacey Chisam at

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